Free Will

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Our culture gives out very confused messages about freedom. At one extreme, we're told that freedom means doing whatever you want – just like the Rolling Stones sang:

"I'm free to do what I want any old time
I'm free to choose what I please any old time"

Well, Oscar Wilde lived that out, and here's what he wrote at the end of his life:

"I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action... makes or unmakes a character… I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer captain of my soul, but did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me, and ended in horrible disgrace."

That is, 'I found that doing whatever you want isn't actually freedom – it becomes bondage.' But then at the other extreme, we're told we actually have no freedom – that we're just bunches of chemicals entirely controlled by our genes. So, in his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that although I believe I genuinely, voluntarily choose to love my wife, that is in fact just an illusion created in my mind by my genes, to maximise their chances of being passed on. In other words, there's no such thing as freedom, because I'm not a person – I'm just a biological machine. And most people would say the truth lies between those two extremes. But where? Well, we're in a short series on the articles of faith ('The 39 Articles') which this church stands for. And we're looking at the ones about what's gone wrong between us and God, and how God, through Jesus, has acted to put it right. And today we're looking at Article 10, which says:

"Of Free-Will:

The condition of Man [i.e. mankind - men and women] after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [which is Old English for 'preceding us'] that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will."

Now that's a bit wordy and in 16th century English – but it's a good summary of what the Bible says about free will. Now, the trouble is you can use that word 'free' in two different senses. You can use it in the sense of making a genuine, voluntary choice – where you're doing what you really want – nothing and no-one is forcing you.' But you can also use it in the sense that you're not constrained or bound by anything. So, for example, I'm free to put up my hand – that's something I can do. Whereas I'm not free to float up to the ceiling – that's something I can't do because I'm bound by gravity. And the Bible says: we are free in that first sense – we do make genuine, voluntary choices, because we're not biological machines; we're persons, made in God's image. But we're not free in that second sense of not being bound by anything – because the Bible says that, apart from Jesus, we're bound by the sinful human nature we heard about last week, with the result that we can't stop living without God and turn back to him under our own steam. So I've got three points to make on what the Bible says about free will:

1. By Nature, We're Not Free to Stop Living without God and Turn Back to Him

So maybe you can look back to the time before you turned to Jesus, when you were hearing the gospel (maybe over many years) but didn't respond. And it leaves you thinking, 'Why didn't I 'get it' sooner? What was wrong with me?' Or maybe you've had the experience of taking a friend along to a Christian event. And the speaker is excellent, and you sit there thinking, 'I don't see how anyone could hear this and not become a Christian.' And your friend turns to you at the end and says, 'Well apart from the first joke, I don't know what he was on about.' And you think, 'Why can't they 'get it'?' Well, that's what Article 10 is about. It says:

"The condition of Man[mankind] after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God"

And when people don't respond positively to the gospel – when they don't 'turn... to faith and calling upon God' – it's easy to lose heart. But in 2 Corinthians 4, verses 1-3, the apostle Paul writes:

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways [like pressurising people]. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God's word, [in other words, we don't change the gospel to make it more acceptable] but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing."

So Paul knew what it was like to share the gospel with people and find that it's as if there's a veil (or curtain) across their minds. Because people would listen to his message and then tell him, 'I just don't see it, Paul. I don't see that Jesus was somehow God. I don't see myself as a sinner. I don't see how Jesus dying could somehow pay for forgiveness.' Well, read on into verse 4:

"In their case the god of this world [which is probably a reference to Satan or the devil] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."

So as the Bible sees it, before I was a Christian, Satan or the devil had me successfully tempted onto his side, so that I was living without God. And verse 4 says that in that condition you're wilfully blind to God, so that when you encounter the gospel, you just don't want to see what it's saying.

You may know the story of Nelson in the sea Battle of Copenhagen. Things weren't going well for the English. So the admiral of the fleet ran up the signal to retreat. And Nelson's second in command pointed it out to him. But Nelson had no intention of giving up the fight. So he put his telescope to his blind eye, scanned the horizon and said, "Signal? I see no signal." And he went on to win the battle. We see what we want to see, don't we? And since the fall, by nature, we don't want to see the 'signal' of the gospel – that Jesus is Lord, that he is our rightful ruler. And Romans 8.7-8 spells that out. Paul writes:

"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God."

So 'the flesh' is Paul's word for human nature as it is this side of the fall. And Paul says that it's hostile to God, so that we not only don't submit to God's rule over our lives, but can't – because we don't want to. You may remember John Chapman, or 'Chappo' – the Australian evangelist who led several missions here. He used to go into a school to teach RE to a bunch of sixth formers whose only interest in the subject was proving him wrong. And they were doing the bit in John 6.44 where Jesus says,

"No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him."

And one of the lads said, 'What does that mean, then, sir?' And Chappo said, 'It means you can't become a Christian whenever you want. You can only become a Christian when God wants.' And this lad said, 'That's rubbish. I could become a Christian any time I wanted.' So Chappo said, 'OK. All this year you've been trying to show what a mug I am. So here's a golden opportunity to prove me wrong. Go on, then – become a Christian.' And this lad said, 'What do you mean?' And Chappo said, 'Become a Christian – you just said you could, any time you wanted.' And this lad said, 'But I don't want to.' So Chappo said, 'Well, want to want to.' And this lad said, 'I don't want to.' And Chappo said, 'And you won't want to, unless God does something to make you want to. That's what Jesus is saying.'

So that's the first thing about free will: by nature we're not free to stop living without God and turn back to him. Which begs the questions, 'So how did you become a Christian, if you are one?' and, 'How can you become a Christian, if you're not yet one? So on to my next point, which is that:

2. We Need God to Work in Us by His Spirit to Enable Us to Turn to Him

Here is what Article 10 says, again:

"The condition of Man[kind] after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will"

Now, very confusingly, in the 16th century that word 'preventing' meant the exact opposite of what it means today. So today if I prevent you, it means I stop you doing something, I disable you. But in the 16th century, if I pre-vented you it means I pre-ceded you, I went before you, to do something for you, to enable you to do something. So, for example, every Sunday morning our verger, K.C. (with his wife Emily), pre-cedes us here and opens up the buildings to enable us to do church. And in the 16th century they would have said 'K.C. pre-vents us, so we can do church.' So with that in mind, here is Article 10 again, paraphrased at the end:

"Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preceding us – doing something before we do anything – that we may have a good will [in other words, a will that wants to give God his rightful place]"

And what God has to do is to work in us by his Spirit – to overcome our natural, post-fall resistance to him. And 1 Corinthians 2 is a chapter that talks about that. Reading from verses 9-12, that chapter says:

"But, as it is written,
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him" –
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God."

So 1 Corinthians 2 is about the message of Jesus' death for our forgiveness – and how people come to 'get it' – to understand it and accept it. And Paul (who wrote 1 & 2 Corinthians) says: no-one 'gets it' naturally. He says: people only 'get it' if they've had it revealed to them by God's Spirit – enabling them to see what they otherwise just won't see. So unless God's Spirit works in us, we won't see ourselves as in the wrong with God, we won't see ourselves as needing to be forgiven, and needing to give God his rightful place in our lives, and we won't see that Jesus' death was for our forgiveness, and out of love for us. Whereas, 1 Corinthians 2.12 tells us that believers in Jesus can say:

"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God [in other words, his Son given to die for us, and the forgiveness that flows from that]."

And when, by his Spirit, God enables you to see that he was doing that for you at the cross – it changes what you want. So, before I was a Christian, I was doing what I wanted – I wanted to live without God. So I had free will in the sense that I was making a genuine, voluntary choice to do that. But I didn't have free will in the sense that I couldn't stop doing that and want God back in my life. For that to happen, I needed to hear the gospel – and to have God work in me by his Spirit, to enable me to see his love for me in the cross – because that's what changes what you want. It changes you from distrusting God to thinking, 'If that's what he's done for me, then I want to trust him and have him where he belongs as Lord of my life.'

Now that begs the question: 'Isn't God removing your free will by working in you like that? Isn't it like flicking a switch on a robot to make it do something different, or shifting a car from reverse to first? Where's the free will in that?' Well, the trouble with those illustrations – the robot, the car – is that they're about machines, not persons. So here's the best personal illustration I could think of. I was best man for some friends called Richard and Rachel. And Rachel was interested in Richard first and, aided and abetted by her two flatmates, she spent three months trying to get him interested in her. He later said to me he thought all those invitations to supper were just humanitarian concern for an incompetent bachelor (which he was). Anyway, eventually he noticed Rachel and what a good thing she was, and started wondering how he could possibly get her interested in him. And I remember after they were married, Richard telling me in her hearing how he'd pursued her. And Rachel indignantly said, 'You pursued me? Don't you realise how much pursuing I had to do to get you to that point?!'

So just think about that:

  • Did Richard choose and pursue Rachel? Yes.
  • But did Rachel pre-choose and pre-pursue Richard? Yes.
  • So was Richard's choosing and pursuing still done freely and voluntarily – was it a genuine choice of his? Yes.
  • But would he have ever made that choice unless Rachel had pre-pursued him? No.

Well, that's an imperfect picture of how it happens between the Lord and us:

  • If you have Jesus as Lord and Saviour, did you choose him? Yes.
  • But did God work in you by his Spirit to enable you to? Yes.
  • So was your choosing Jesus still done freely and voluntarily – was it a genuine choice of yours? Yes.
  • But would you have ever made that decision unless God had worked in you by his Spirit? No.

So if you are trusting in Jesus, can I say: be grateful to God – because you'd have never got there under your own steam. And be humble towards others – because you're no smarter than others who currently don't 'get it'. The only difference between you and them is that God, by his Spirit, has enabled you, spiritually speaking, to see.

And what if you don't yet have faith in Jesus, but would like to? This might leave you thinking, 'Well, if it's ultimately up to God to enable me to come to faith, there's nothing I can do, is there?' But the answer is: there is. You can do two things. One is to keep coming to where you can hear about Jesus through the Bible. Because God doesn't just zap people, he uses means – and the main means is the Bible: that's where you meet Jesus. And the other thing you can do is to pray and ask God to give you the faith you want, because if something ultimately depends on God, our first response should be to ask him for it. My final point is that:

3. God Will Continue His Work in Us – And He Calls Us to Live It Out

Look at Article 10 one more time, starting halfway through:

"Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preceding us that we may have a good will [i.e. that we may become Christians in the first place] and working with us, when we have that good will [i.e. to keep us going as Christians]"

So think of a bouncy castle. It doesn't just need that initial filling with air to get it up; it needs an ongoing supply of air to keep it up. And being a Christian is a bit like that. It takes the initial work of God's Spirit in you to get you up and going in faith and obedience. And then it takes his ongoing work to keep you up and going in faith and obedience. And Philippians 1.6 says that's basically what God promises to do, because Paul writes:

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you [that is, God] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."

And that's meant to assure us. So you may be thinking about accepting Jesus – but worried that you couldn't change the way he'd want you to, or couldn't face the challenges and costs involved. As a friend once said to me when he was on the brink of becoming a Christian, 'I don't think I could keep it up.' But the point is: he'll keep you up. Because what he begins, he completes.

Or you may be a believer flagging under pressure and difficulty and doubts, and worrying whether your faith will keep going. But this says: he'll keep your faith going. So instead of worrying about your faith – or someone else's – pray for God to keep it going, because he can, and he will. So listen finally to these verses from Philippians 2.12-13:

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

Now 'work out your own salvation' doesn't mean we work to earn our salvation. Salvation – our relationship with God saved from his judgement – can't be earned. It's a double-gift – in the form of forgiveness through the cross and God's Spirit working in our hearts. So in verse 13, God is saying, 'I'm working in you by my Spirit, right down to the level of your will, to give you new desires to please and obey me.' And in verse 12 he's saying, 'So you work those new desires out into practice. Live out what I'm doing in you.'

Now all of us who are Christians continue to have sinful desires in our spiritual systems – like unwanted squatters in the house of our lives that we can't evict this side of heaven. And God calls us to recognize that those sinful desires are not the real you or me. He calls us to recognize that those new desires he's working in us are the real you or me – the desires to be holy, to be free from anger, to be humble, to be sexually obedient, or whatever it is. And he calls us to live out those new desires and say no to the old ones.

Because the bottom line about free will is that freedom is not the ability to say 'Yes' to every desire or feeling or urge. Freedom is the ability to say 'Yes' or 'No' – depending on what's right in God's sight. And what's right in God's sight is, simultaneously, what's best for us.

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